Young adult fantasy is such a female dominated space that when I picked up Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies by Lindsay Ribar, I was surprised to discover that it had a male protagonist. Aspen Quick, our main character, comes from a family that can steal things from people. I don’t mean physical possessions; rather, they can reach into a person and take more nebulous things like good eyesight, a mole, or romantic feelings just by touching something with a connection to that person.
It’s an interesting power, but I wondered at first at the decision to make the protagonist male. However, I discovered that his maleness was essential to the development of the storyline, because the magical system in Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies is perfectly set up to discuss consent and critique male entitlement.
Spoilers for the story below!
Aspen’s family was ostensibly given this power to protect their small upstate New York town from the threatening, vaguely sentient cliff that overlooks it. As needed, they take things from people in the town—a boy’s competitive streak, someone’s freckles, etc.—and feed them to the cliff to keep it from falling down onto the town. (Hence the title.)
However, the family can use their powers at any time, not just for the cliff ritual. Aspen travels through life using his powers almost thoughtlessly to get what he wants. If he is drunk, he can steal someone’s sobriety to drive home. If someone’s seen him do something bad, he can steal their memory of it. His best friend is dating his crush, so he removes their romantic feelings for each other so he can move in on her. It’s only when his powers start to backfire and misfire—i.e., when they no longer effortlessly make his life easier—that he begins to question his family’s legacy. Even then, his realization that his powers are inherently hurtful isn’t something he arrives at on his own—rather, it comes in two external parts. First, it’s pointed out to him by a girl on whom his powers don’t work, and who informs him how deeply sleazy his behavior is. Then, he discovers that he has also been the victim of magical theft at the hands of his father.
Aspen was raised by his father after his un-powered mother left, paranoid of her husband’s casual use of his powers. Despite the hard and fast Quick family rule that one does not steal from family, his mother was always uncomfortable with the power, even when it made life easier, and was never certain that her husband would stay true to his family’s rule. In fact, it turned out that Aspen’s father was breaking the family’s rule constantly, for the very reason that it did make life easier. He removed his son’s fear of dogs when Aspen was young rather than taking the time to teach him that he shouldn’t be afraid. When a beloved cousin died as a result of an accident with the cliff ritual, his father removed his grief. It’s only when Aspen realizes what he himself has lost that he truly comes to terms with the effect his power has on others. He is forced to question whether his family’s role as the ostensible protectors of the town is worth the price they’re paying to feed the cliff.
Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies is honestly one of the most complex stories about masculinity that I have ever read. First and foremost, it deals with male entitlement. I’m hard-pressed to think of another fantasy story where a character’s male gender is so necessary to the character. This book could not have been about a girl because of the way girls are socialized from birth to be respectful of boundaries. Even within the story, the young female cousin with the power had qualms about it that Aspen never considers, and it takes a female friend to point out how downright skeevy it is. He just has a fantastic magical ability that makes his life easier; what more could a teenage boy ask for? He doesn’t realize that stealing the boundaries that keep him from his crush is essentially removing her ability to give informed consent. He doesn’t realize that everything he does with his power is a kind of rape, given that he is taking away pieces of people’s memories and personalities, even their physical attributes, without their knowledge or consent. After all, this behavior has been tacitly encouraged for his entire life, just like rape culture is tacitly condoned in real life.
There’s also a message about toxic masculinity in there as well, though. His father taught Aspen by example to use his gift to make his life easier, but his father was also grooming Aspen to fit a toxic masculine ideal because it was easier for him as a father. Rather than let Aspen deal with his grief naturally, his father removes his grief. Rather than teach him to process his fear, he removes Aspen’s fear. In the real world, men are socialized to see anger as the only “manly” way of dealing with their feelings. In Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies, Aspen is literally left with anger as his only coping mechanism because of the emotional capacities his father has taken from him. His father doesn’t even see the damage he’s done, because it’s not like those behaviors were appropriate for a dude anyway, and didn’t life get easier without them?
As Aspen opens his eyes to the problems inherent in his family’s powers, he begins to question whether they’re necessary at all. He discovers that the matriarch of the Quick family, the only one who can actually sense what the cliff needs, has been manipulating the system. She has been taking far more than what the cliff needs to maintain itself in order to keep herself alive longer; she has far outlived her years by reaching into the people of the town for whatever her failing body needs to replace. Furthermore, she’s been grooming her family members to act with the same casual disregard for other people’s agency. With his entire paradigm on shaky ground, Aspen has to challenge the mentality of entitlement he’s been cultivated to accept and reject the family way (even if doing so means that rocks will fall, everyone will die, etc.). In a way, her deceit is a reminder that women can still profit from an unbalanced system by participating in it rather than challenging it. However, as she was the starting point of the family’s powers, the revelation that she was evil also vaguely undermined the critique of masculinity by making it so that it was a woman who cast the first stone, as it were. While it made sense for the plot the way the story had developed, it left the message a little muddied. Despite this small confusion, though, the story is still a really powerful analysis of masculinity, unlike anything I’ve seen in YA, and despite this it never feels like an issue book. It’s honestly forgivable to me because the story is so compelling.
I highly recommend Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies just as a fresh, unique, and interesting take on fantasy set in the real world. However, while I came for the YA fantasy, what really kept me reading was my fascination with how organically the book addressed and unpacked the complex themes it tackled.